A Champion for Pakistan’s Women

2014

Ambreen Haq was born to challenge Pakistan’s status quo. After her father, a military major, died in the East Pakistan War of 1971, Haq’s mother was forced to leave a comfortable housewife’s life. She became a bank employee and joined the first generation of Pakistani women to work in large numbers. Haq recalls growing up listening to her mother strategizing about “how to empower women—and how to get them on their feet.”

Now, Haq is working to support a new generation of Pakistani women. For nearly two decades, Haq, a 43-year-old mother of three, has operated an obstetrics and gynecology practice in the heart of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Last year, she began studying online for a master’s degree in public health at the University of Liverpool, driven by one big idea: “To improve health conditions in my country, we need a change in behavior and society,” she says.

Shortly after starting her courses, Haq learned about the Swat Relief Initiative, an organization committed to improving conditions in the rural northwest corner of Pakistan. The Swat Valley’s economy and cultural life withered under the Taliban’s rule. Girls were banned from schools. And, in 2012, a Swat Valley teenager named Mala Yousafazi was shot in the head while defending the right of girls to attend school. It was an act that pushed the plight of Pakistan’s girls and women onto the world’s consciousness. After that incident, Haq emailed the Swat Relief Initiative’s administrators with a plan that echoed one of the central arguments in her dissertation: In South Asia, maternal mortality can be reduced only through education, prenatal care and economic empowerment. Soon, Haq was planning her first trip to the Swat Valley.

“To improve health conditions in my country, we need a change in behavior and society.”
Ambreen Haq, Doctor

Haq ignored friends’ warnings about Swat Valley’s dangers. In July 2013, she boarded a bus in Islamabad, carrying boxes of medications and nutritional supplements for pregnant women. She also brought machines to test patients’ blood and oxygen. Five hours later, she arrived in the Swat Valley. The hospital, she recalls, was dirty and lined with patients. Many patients were anemic. Some were ready to deliver their 12th child. “They were in the worst possible shape,” Haq recalls. There was no electricity, so she pressed the administrators to find a generator to power her machines.

One day, a pharmaceutical company’s representative took her on a tour of nearby villages. Many villagers scoffed at her suggestion that they use contraception. “This isn’t just religious—it’s a cultural issue, too,” Haq says. Female doctors confessed they hadn’t been taught to use medical equipment, in part because they couldn’t leave their families to travel to Islamabad for training. “I’ll teach you,” Haq told them. She met with tribal chiefs to explain how women’s health is crucial to their tribes’ futures. “That was a breakthrough moment.”

Now, back at her base in Islamabad, Haq holds three-hour Skype sessions each week with Swat Valley’s “lady health workers” on ultrasound procedures, breast-feeding and prenatal and postnatal care. Every two months, she visits Swat to deliver live workshops. With the guidance of scholars and tribal and religious leaders, Haq is developing a manual that deals with domestic violence and adoption, and explains that certain forms of contraception are not at odds with the Quran. She is helping plan a Swat Relief Learning Center, where democratic principles will be taught to men—and women. But she also is plotting a more ambitious goal: replicating the Swat Relief Initiative’s model to improve health care for all Pakistani women.

“I’ve achieved inner peace,” Haq says. “This is about more than health. This is about building a community—breaking the cycle of intolerance, enabling people to hold themselves accountable.” Great movements often start with one person’s bold vision. Ambreen Haq is a powerful example of how one woman’s work will have an enduring impact on her country’s future.